The deadlift is considered to be one of the “basic exercises” in weight training. It falls into this category because of the large number of muscles it involves to perform this exercise. For this reason, strength training and sports training professionals find the deadlift to be a very versatile exercise. It is performed by beginners as well as advanced lifters for strength and powerlifting training, and it is used as a hip, leg and lower-back builder for football, basketball and a variety of other sports.
The deadlift has also assumed a revered place in the increasingly popular “Cross-Fit” training regimens. Unfortunately, the increased push for heavy poundages and multiple repetitions, both in general, and in the “Cross-Fit” scenario, in particular, has led to a proliferation of improper exercise technique and a variety of performance flaws that can cause injuries and layoffs from training due to lower back pain/injury.
Proper form, along with powerlifting competition rules, dictates that your shoulders should be pulled back at the completion, or “top,” of a deadlift. In other words, after lifting the weighted bar from the floor you should stand erect with the bar before lowering it back to the floor. In addition to standing upright, you must pull or retract your shoulder blades back.
However, If you’re lifting a weight that is more than your upper back can handle you may be unable to do this. And it is in exactly this scenario that improper exercise techniques begin to arise in overzealous or improperly coached individuals. In order to compensate, lifters often thrust their hips forward and arch (or hyper-extend) their backs to give the illusion that they’ve pulled their shoulders back.
It is easy to confuse the shoulder blades being pulled back versus thrusting the hips forward so they are in front of the shoulders. The fact that this improper exercise technique often escapes notice encourages this incorrect form to continue….and often compels some people to pick up weights that they may be a few weeks/months from lifting properly… and safely. And, to make matters worse, many novice weight trainees, powerlifters, and cross-fitters simply mimic the poor technique they see others using in the gym.
The resulting stress on the lower back can be very extreme. The hyperextension of the lower back causes the weight load to shift onto the parts of the lower spine, known as ‘facet joints,’ that are not designed to bear a focused weight load. The facet joints are designed to guide the motion of the lower back. The thicker part of each vertebra, is built to bear weight. When you finish a deadlift with your back hyperextended, the load shifts away from the bodies of the vertebrae and toward the facet joints.
Once the facet joints are “jammed” in this manner, the joints can become inflamed and painful. If this continues and/or the muscles surrounding the lower back undergo adaptive shortening and become tighter, degenerative changes may occur in these areas, a condition that’s known as facet arthrosis. This is especially likely if this kind of stress is ongoing. The situation can lead to other degenerative changes to the lumbar spine as well, including damage to the disks between the vertebrae and arthritic spurring.
Many trainees have acquired the erroneous notion that since the back muscles are strong and the so-called “core” muscles are strong, they shouldn’t have back pain. Exaggerated positions such as the one so frequently used in the deadlift can aggravate even the strongest back.
There are many elements of proper deadlift exercise form. But for the purposes of this article, it is important to note that in the starting position of the deadlift your back should be flat and not excessively arched or rounded. This position allows for more proper biomechanical recruitment of your lower back, hip extensors and knee extensors. If the muscles, tendons, fascia and facet joints of your lumbar spine are already inflamed, an arched back will further aggravate the problem.
The deadlift is a good exercise, but you have to perform it correctly to avoid injuries. Again, don’t rush the poundages, as this will lead to flawed technique. Do deadlifts only once a week, and avoid excessively high reps so that you don’t overtrain or over-fatigue your back. if you have persistent pain, stiffness, or weakness in your lower back, please know that our office has significant expertise in reducing pain and improving strength in the lower back.